DFI & the Seanad: The Election of a Disability Inclusion Voice


The Chief Executive Officer of the Disability Federation of Ireland (DFI), John Dolan, was elected to Seanad Éireann on 28th April 2016.

John successfully contested the election to the 25th Seanad having been supported by ten of the nominating bodies on the Public Administration Panel. John’s candidacy came about as a result of a collaborative initiative by organisations in the community and voluntary sector, primarily voluntary disability organisations, to achieve independent voices within Seanad Éireann.

DFI Engagement & Approach

Prior to John putting his name forward, he received the approval of the Board of the Disability Federation of Ireland to contest the Seanad election and if elected to continue as CEO of DFI. A board meeting of DFI considered the “leadership, management and practical implications” of a situation where the CEO is an Independent member of Seanad Éireann.

This meeting noted that “there are a range of benefits to the work and mission of DFI and for the disability movement” in having “internal participation” in Seanad Éireann. This meeting also recognised that “it is a regular part of the CEO's role to work and engage with the Oireachtas. Similarly the CEO has responsibilities related to international areas, particularly at European level and these are also Oireachtas matters.”

In supporting John Dolan’s candidacy for the Seanad, the DFI Board recognised the benefit of having a strong disability voice in the Oireachtas representation as a means to highlight issues of concern to people with disabilities and to enhance their wider inclusion in our society. The DFI Board chose to endorse John’s campaign on the basis that if elected, he would focus on:

  • Giving Ireland’s 600,000 people with disabilities a voice in the national parliament;
  • Keeping the pressure on to ensure ratification of the UN CRPD and to deliver ongoing improvements based on the Disable Inequality campaign;
  • Encouraging and supporting other members of the Oireachtas to engage with disability inclusion;
  • Encouraging and supporting local authorities to achieve disability inclusion and
  • Build links and relationships between disability organisations and other civil society organisations and the Oireachtas members to work directly together.

In supporting John Dolan’s campaign, the DFI Board agreed that if John was successful in the election, given the synergies between the two roles, that he would remain in place as CEO of DFI while, at the same time, carrying out his Oireachtas responsibilities. In relation to remuneration, it was agreed that John should neither financially benefit nor lose from this new arrangement.

Qualification of Candidate & Selection Process

The 2016 Register of Nominating Bodies for Seanad Elections, includes the Disability Federation of Ireland as a nominating body on the Administrative Panel. John chose to seek election on the Administrative Panel. There are 16 nominating bodies on this panel, 12 of which are organisations serving people with disabilities.

Article 18 of Bunreacht na hÉireann provides for Senators elected to the Administration Panel to be “persons having knowledge and practical experience of…social services including voluntary social activities.” Recognising that the Seanad derives its legitimacy from the Constitution, on 22nd February 2016, an advertisement was placed in the Irish Times seeking applications from those with particular knowledge and practical experience related to "public administration and social services, including voluntary social activities." A link to this advertisement is available here.

An Independent Selection Committee, chaired by Professor Niamh Brennan, sent qualified applicants forward for an election process in which each of the ten participating nominating bodies had one vote.

The 10 nominating bodies that took part in this initiative were the Center for Independent Living (CIL), Central Remedial Clinic (CRC), Co-operative Housing Ireland, DeafHear, Disability Federation of Ireland (DFI), Enable Ireland, Inclusion Ireland, Irish Foster Care Association (IFCA), Irish Wheelchair Association (IWA) and MS Ireland.

Following the process, which led to 35 applications, John Dolan and Lorraine Dempsey, a board member of Inclusion Ireland, Chairperson of the Special Needs Parents Association (SNPA) and board member of Genetic & Rare Disorders Organisation (GRDO), were chosen to contest the Seanad Election by the 10 nominating bodies from four candidates deemed qualified to proceed to the election.

DFI's Long Term Interest in the Seanad

Pat Clarke, the Chairman of the Disability Federation of Ireland welcomed John’s election as “an historic day for the disability inclusion movement.”

John’s election means that the voice of 600,000 Irish people, who have a disability, along with their families, now have a direct presence in the Oireachtas. John will now be in a position to work through the Seanad with all the elected members on advocating for full inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of Irish society.

DFI has long recognised the need for the Administrative Panel of Seanad Éireann to be used appropriately to provide representation of vocational and civil society, including people with disabilities.

In 2003, the Committee on Procedure and Privileges of Seanad Éireann established a Sub-Committee to review and make recommendations on the composition and functions of the Seanad. This Sub-Committee undertook a process of public consultation on Seanad Reform and DFI made a detailed submission as part of this process. The then DFI Chairperson, Niall Keane (DeafHear) and John Dolan also made an oral presentation to this Sub-Committee.

In its submission, DFI made “the case for the inclusion of the interests of the voluntary disability sector within a reformed Senate on the basis that we consider such a development to be in keeping with developing and deepening democratic participation.”

The DFI submission also recognised that “the strength of the directly elected Dáil is the representation of the broad will of the people. This needs to be complemented by a focus in the Senate on the ongoing voluntary participation of people through groups in civil society.”

DFI’s commitment to the representation of vocational interests and civil society in the Seanad was underpinned by the organisation’s decision to nominate candidates for election to the Seanad in 2007 and 2011.

In the latter election, the Board of DFI, following a selection process, nominated Séamus Boland to contest the Seanad Election as an independent candidate. Séamus, CEO of Irish Rural Link, has a long track record of work within the voluntary sector and previously worked with APT, a DFI member organisation, who are involved in promoting the economic and social integration of persons with disabilities.

In 2013, John Dolan was a member of the strategy committee of Democracy Matters, a civil society group that successfully campaigned to oppose the referendum to abolish Seanad Éireann and which continues to advocate Seanad reform.

Advancing DFI's Objectives

DFI’s increasing focus on Oireachtas participation as a means to advance the cause of people with disabilities is consistent with the organisation’s Memorandum of Association, as amended by special resolution on 28th May 2014.

This Memorandum maintains that “the main object for which the Federation is established is to benefit the community by supporting the contribution, protecting the rights and valuing the role of persons with disabilities and disabling conditions in the community and encouraging their fullest participation in shaping a society that promotes the wellbeing and quality of life of such persons.”

In particular, this memorandum also sets DFI the objective of “representing the interests of people with disabilities, and charitable organisations established to assist them, at national, European and international level so as to clearly communicate their needs and assist in the formation of strategies designed to best advance their interests and best secure their wellbeing and rights.”

Furthermore, the DFI Sustainability and Growth Plan, published in January 2015, noted that “consistent with DFI's mission, the need is to actualise the Irish legislation and National policy so that people with disabilities really are included and integrated into the provision of goods and services, similar with all other citizens.” Engagement with the Oireachtas, Government Departments and public bodies has increasingly become an ongoing feature of the work of the CEO of DFI. Membership of the Seanad provides a greatly enhanced platform for the CEO to perform his duties relating to engagement with the Oireachtas, the Government and other public bodies and at the same time to contribute to the further development of democratic participation.

Disable Inequality General Election Campaign

The Disability Federation of Ireland’s commitment to putting disability centre-stage on the Oireachtas agenda was further evidenced in the recent Disable Inequality General Election campaign, which was facilitated by DFI on behalf of its organisations.

John Dolan was the National Campaign Director of Disable Inequality and he provided leadership to a campaign that encouraged the electorate to vote to end discrimination towards people with disabilities. This campaign asked its supporters to ask Dáil candidates what they would do to ensure:

  1. The appointment of a Minister for Disability Inclusion to the cabinet table.
  2. That people with disabilities have a fair income.
  3. That people with disabilities have the same access to supports and services as everyone else.

Furthermore, the Disable Inequality campaign identified the following priorities for inclusion in the programme for government:

  1. Establish a Cabinet Minister for Disability Inclusion to drive and co-ordinate Government response including the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.
  2. Increase the Disability Allowance starting with €20 in Budget 2017 and introduce a Disability Tax Credit.
  3. Make all employment activation programmes eligible to people with disabilities.
  4. Increase the disability budget in health by €50m each year.
  5. Increase the Personal Assistant budget by €7m each year for the next 3 years.
  6. Guarantee that medical cards are retained on need not employment status.
  7. Ensure all education programmes provide supports for full inclusion.
  8. Ensure all public transport, facilities and structures are accessible.

The Disable Inequality campaign generated substantial media coverage and increased public awareness of the key issues concerning the disability community.

DFI believes that this campaign was influential in ensuring that comprehensive sections on both Disability and Mental Health are contained in ‘A Programme for a Partnership Government,’ the programme for government document agreed between the Fine Gael Party, the Independent Alliance and Independent TDs.

DFI was pleased to welcome the fact that this programme for government included a number of commitments broadly in line with the Disable Inequality campaign’s key asks at the recent election. The Disability Federation of Ireland was clear that cabinet leadership would be essential to co-ordinate a whole of government approach, including the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD) no later than the end of 2016.

In particular, DFI believes that the decision to have a Minister for Disability at the cabinet will help drive the many practical reforms that are needed across public bodies to deliver person centred services and better value for money.

Disable Inequality Reinforced by Seanad Campaign

John Dolan’s Seanad election campaign reinforced the key messages from the Disable Inequality campaign at local level, as John travelled the country meeting and engaging with members of local authorities. The campaign also served to keep a strong focus on disability issues at a time when public discourse was centred on what should be the composition and policy agenda of the next Government. John’s campaign was conducted against the backdrop of a lengthy hiatus following the general election. Ultimately, it took 70 days of negotiations before a new Government could be formed.

Lengthy political discussions took place as Fine Gael entered into a ‘Confidence and Supply’ arrangement with Fianna Fáil, the largest opposition party, to facilitate the formation of a government. This was followed by protracted talks between Fine Gael and Independent TDs.

While these crucial political negotiations were taking place, John Dolan’s Seanad campaign kept the priorities identified by the Disable Inequality campaign at the forefront of the political agenda. Furthermore, John’s campaign pledged to:

  1. Give the 600,000 people with disabilities a voice.
  2. Keep the pressure on to ensure ratification of the UN CRPD.
  3. Assist and facilitate members of the Seanad and Dail to support the disability movement and to progress disability inclusion at local level where people live.
  4. Seek to ensure full participation for people with disabilities in the local community.
  5. Strive to ensure that disability is included in all mainstream plans at local and national policy levels.

John also published his own comprehensive Seanad Election Manifesto, ‘Bringing Disability Inclusion to Where People Live,’ which is available to view here.

Remuneration and DFI Goverance and Operational Matters

Prior to the nomination of John Dolan to contest the Seanad election it was agreed by the Board of DFI that John should not financially gain or lose through membership of Seanad Eireann while he would also continue as CEO of DFI. This therefore requires that the amount of the Seanad salary €65,000.pa would instead be at the disposal of DFI for it's work. This amount is being invested in progressing DFI's work to ensure that Irish society becomes fully inclusive of people with disabilities and disabling conditions so that they can exercise fully their civil, social and human rights.

The Board also agreed that the Chairperson, Pat Clarke, would work with appropriate financial and pension personnel, namely the current Auditors of DFI, LHM Casey McGrath and DFI's pension scheme advisors, Independent Financial Advisory Trust Ltd, in order to put in place the necessary changes related to salary. The Board has also appointed two further board members, on foot of a recommendation by the Chairperson, to have ongoing oversight of the arrangement and to report to the board as required.

At the operational level there have also been changes to reflect the fact that the CEO is also operating as a Senator. These involve changes to the operation of the Management Team and other internal operational areas. The Management Team comprises the CEO, Deputy CEO and the Head of Policy and Research. At the same time a number of work areas being undertaken by the CEO have been devolved throughout the organisation. This has involved changes for the Deputy CEO, Head of Policy and Research and throughout other staff. There will be extra human resources in place as a result of the extra funding available while John is in the Seanad to also assist.


John’s election ensures that the voice of the 600,000 people with disabilities and their families is directly heard, for the first time, in the corridors of power. For a long time, DFI has sought to lobby, persuade and advocate to the political system the importance of tackling the inequality experienced by people living with a disability.

On 28th May, John Dolan was one of five new members of Seanad Éireann that subsequently formed a technical group known as the Civil Engagement Group. This group is not a political party and is an alliance to maximise speaking and participation opportunities for its members, all of whom have backgrounds in civil society, activism and social movements.

As an active Senator, John Dolan is now in a stronger position to advance DFI’s priority of supporting the inclusion of people with disabilities and their families through working for ‘a whole of government’ approach. John will also be able to advance the input of people with disabilities in planning and decision-making in respect of policies that affect them.